Friday, August 21, 2015

When is human?

7 1/2 Week Embryo
Endowment for Human Development

3 months Old Fetus, Endowment for Human Development
 “We're all human, aren't we? Every human life is worth the same, and worth saving.” J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows
"Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being." Catholic Catechism, 2258






This post is in response to comments on  "The Banality of Evil, Redux" reposted on Matt Briggs' blog . The commentators attempted to justify abortion by denying the humanity of an embryo or fetus using the following arguments:
  1. A fetus is not human until it totally emerges from the birth canal (a presumed justification for partial-birth abortion);
  2. Before some arbitrary time mark, say 24 weeks after conception, it is  permissible to abort a fetus;
  3. Since self-awareness is a prime criterion for being human, it is permissible to abort an embryo or fetus before it is self-aware.
All these assertions deny a fundamental article of Catholic Faith, that life begins at the instant of conception and that the Holy Spirit endows that life with a soul. 

Another commentator gave an excellent general rebuttal to the assertions above: "zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, child, teen-ager, adult, oldster are only labels for stages in the development of a human being;   the human is one entity".   As this comment made clear, a human being develops continuously, not in discrete steps that have sharp demarcation points.

PARTIAL BIRTH ABORTION IS IRRATIONAL

In 1999 Senators Rick Santorum and Barbara Boxer debated partial birth abortion. Senator Boxer maintained, without any other specific qualification, 
"The baby is born when the baby is outside the mother’s body"
Senator Santorum tried to get her to be more specific:
"But, again, what you are suggesting is if the baby’s toe is inside the mother, you can, in fact, kill that baby." 
 Senator Boxer vehemently denied that, but would not be specify how much of the baby's body had to be in the birth canal to justify partial birth abortion. Her assertion that the baby had to be outside the mother's body in order to qualify as a human being defies common sense, as is made obvious by Senator Santorum's questioning. And this is the problem with partial birth abortion: it defines human status in a totally arbitrary way.

TIME LIMITS TO ALLOW ABORTION ARE ARBITRARY

In many states an arbitrary time after conception is set for abortions to be allowed:  before that time abortion is legal; afterwards, not.    Most recently the Ohio State Legislature passed a 20 week abortion limit.   Some interesting questions occur, naive though they may be.    First, how do you determine (without drastic invasions of privacy) when conception occurs?   Drawing a curtain over that issue, we can ask if a fetus at 19 weeks, 6 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes after conception is non-human, i.e. legally eligible for abortion, and a fetus 20 weeks, and one minute after conception is human, not to be aborted.     I should hope it's clear that any time marker to legalize abortion is arbitrary, without any rational basis. 


THERE IS NO SHARP POINT AT WHICH A HUMAN IS SELF-AWARE

The third of the comments above asserted that an embryo or fetus would not be human because it would not be self-aware and, therefore, could be aborted without qualms.  Really?  If we're deeply asleep, do we then become non-human, zombies?    What about people in deep comas from which they later awake?    Are they non-human while in coma and then become human again when they recover?    

With respect to self-awareness in infants, it does not suddenly occur when the baby emerges from the birth canal.    Studies by an Emory University psychologist, Phillipe Rochat, suggest that there are five levels of self-awareness from infancy to early childhood.   Rochat asserts that even immediately after birth, babies have passed beyond the initial stage (total confusion): 
"It appears that immediately after birth, infants are capable of demonstrating already a sense of their own body as a differentiated entity: an entity among other entities in the environment (Level 1)." Phillipe Rochat, Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life 
And if this awareness is present immediately after birth, should it not also be present before birth?    And if the development of consciousness is a continuous process, when is it that not one smidgeon of self-awareness is present?  Remember, the brain is present as a partially developed organ some 5 weeks after conception.

ALLOWING ABORTION HAS WIDER MORAL CONSEQUENCES

In a previous post, The Banality of Evil, Redux, I compared the Nazi genocide of Jews to the Planned Parenthood abortion industry:  
"The Nazis did not regard Jews as humans, nor, evidently, do Planned Parenthood doctors regard unborn babies as human."
Once it is admitted that a person "no matter how small" can be classified as non-human, then there are no limits:
"Assuming as a principle that humans can be selectively classified as unworthy of life—as elderly, as disabled, as unborn, as ethnically impure, as mentally challenged–violates that which is, or should be, written in the conscience of every man."
Since Roe vs Wade there has been a decline in sexual morality, a rise in fatherless families and, generally,  all that contributes to bad times.   Whether there is a causal relation as some contend can be debated.  (See The Myth about Abortion and Crime  and Does Abortion Really Reduce Crime.)  So where does that leave us?   That only evil can come from abortion.
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About Me

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Retired, cranky, old physicist.   Convert to Catholicism in 1995.   Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith.   Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/   and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland)

Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC.
Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

And, finally, my motivation:
“It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking.
Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.